INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS: Mike Burgess
Taghazout, a popular surf destination in Morocco, has seen immense touristic growth in the last two decades. Exclusive resorts have made recreational activities and locations inaccessible to locals, especially the local skate community. Levi’s Skateboarding partnered with the Make Life Skate Life organization to build a skatepark in Taghazout to create an inclusive space for local skaters and the greater community. We met with Arne Hillerns, Make Life Skate Life’s Founder and Executive Director, while in Morocco and picked his brain about the project, MLSL’s history with Levi’s, and his organization’s mission.
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What is Make Life Skate Life? And how long have you guys been building parks?
Spin a globe, close your eyes and place your finger down anywhere. As long as there’s dry land under your finger, I guarantee there’s a kid out there with a dusty old board trying to skate. Make Life Skate Life helps that kid get a better place to skate, get a better board, and teach others to skate.
From Iraq to Bolivia, there are active skate scenes everywhere in the world. But for the most part, they are disconnected from the international skate scene and struggle because of that. Skateboarders are naturally hard-working, creative, ingenious, and passionate. So we are creating a worldwide network of skaters that can help each other out. Every year, we tap more areas into our worldwide shred-net. We started 5 years ago and so far we’ve built 9 skateparks across the globe. Our long-term vision is to shift the skate world’s focus from the pros in Street League to the kids in the streets.
How’d you first start? Where was the first park built?
In 2012 while traveling through India with my skateboard, I met the pioneer Indian skateboarder Abhishek (Shake). He wanted to build a skatepark for his community but at the time Indian skaters had no experience in skatepark construction. So we had professional skatepark builders come to India and build a skatepark. Throughout the process, the local skaters got a hand-on skatepark building education. Once they had the knowledge, skateboarding exploded there. Since completion of that first project, those Indian skaters have built more than 20 skateparks across their country.
What other countries have you built parks in?
After India (2013) we went to Bolivia (2014) to build a huge skatepark at 13 thousand feet. In the same year, we did our first crowdfunder for building a skatepark in Jordan, followed by Myanmar (2015), Ethiopia (2016), and Nepal. In Nepal, we actually built two skateparks, one in the capital Kathmandu during a research trip we did in 2016, and a second one in Pokhara in 2017. Since the park build in Morocco we constructed Iraq’s first skatepark in the Kurdish region this year.
How was it working with Levi’s? Have you worked on previous projects?
We’ve already worked together on past projects in India and Bolivia, which actually laid the foundation for MLSL as an organization. It’s great working with Levi’s. Their support of skaters at the grass-roots level makes it really compelling for us to collaborate with them. They have a very strong community focus and engage in projects that have a positive impact on communities. We already knew most of the team before working together on the park, which made it a flawless experience.
_Taghazout, Morocco seems like a pretty random place to build a skate park. How’s the skate scene there? _
Taghazout, a small surf town in southern Morocco, was definitely not on our radar until the locals reached out to us. They said that there was the need for a skatepark and that the government was planning to make land available. After checking out the place we were convinced that the people there would benefit immensely from a skatepark for a few reasons. Firstly, there isn’t much to do for youth so many are tempted to do drugs and party. So skateboarding would be a super positive alternative to that for the local kids. Secondly, Taghazout is a surf town and the inherent surf culture subverted the traditional gender roles in the community which meant that skateboarding could be accessed by females.
How long did it take to build and did you encounter any challenges?
It took us less than three weeks to complete the park so it was definitely one of the smoother builds. We’ve had more than 100 volunteers helping with construction and the skill level of builders was extremely high. The work site had a real vacation-vibe to it, not to mention the amazing view over the ocean and bay area. Everybody regularly got to spend time at the beach and go surfing. It still amazes me what can be achieved when like-minded people get together to work towards a common goal. The turn-out is mind-blowing – the skatepark in Taghazout is hands-down the best skatepark we’ve built so far and has become a second home to a lot of skaters in the region.
What was opening day like?
Opening days are always special and so was this one. It was a true community event with locals helping out. There was a lot of local food, a lot of skaters showed up from all over Morocco, a traditional music group showed up and pulled off an incredible show. It was a big celebration of Moroccan culture and skateboarding.
You have volunteers from all around the world. How do you find those people?
Volunteer-wise, building Taghazout Skatepark was a special case. Because of the proximity to Europe, people could follow the build on social media, hop on the plane and help out at the build the next day. In this case, it was more like people found us instead of us reaching out to them. Our projects have grown a volunteer base made up of skilled professionals that take an unpaid vacation to help build a skatepark in a place that they will probably never skate again.
What’s next for you guys?
At the moment we are helping the local skate crew in Iraq nurture their skate scene and grow outreach efforts in the region. Our project in Amman, Jordan has had huge success in bringing skating to the refugees of that area and we’d love to achieve the same thing in Iraq.
In terms of future projects, our inbox is always flooded with requests. Like I said at the beginning, point to anywhere on the globe and there’s a kid there who needs a place to skate. Although we’d love to get to them all, we simply don’t have the resources. But we are beginning to narrow our focus onto a few potential projects in some very exciting parts of the world. Stay tuned to see where the next new projects pop up! Those that would like to get involved can contact us via our website at makelifeskatelife.org.